Dance Collaboration Connects Community

Kenyon students are working with the Ohio State University to restage a significant 1958 dance for the community in a free performance in Mount Vernon.

Student dance performance
Students from Kenyon and Ohio State are collaborating to perform "Missa Brevis" on Feb. 10 at the Knox Memorial Theater in Mount Vernon (photo by Valarie Williams).

A collaboration between the Kenyon Department of Dance, Drama and Film and Ohio State University is breathing new life into a 1958 masterpiece by legendary choreographer José Limón.

The ambitious project to restage “Missa Brevis” — a modern dance created in response to the destruction that Limón witnessed in Poland after World War II — will involve a cast of 11 students from Kenyon and 19 from Ohio State. The 30-minute piece will be part of an afternoon of free community dance classes and performances on Feb. 10 at the Knox Memorial Theater in Mount Vernon.

Kenyon Professor of Dance Julie Brodie worked with colleagues from Ohio State — Mara Frazier and Valarie Williams — to stage the dance from the original Labanotation score, a way of analyzing and recording movement with symbols. Dante Puleio, artistic director at the Limón Company in New York City, also coached students from both schools.

The upcoming performance will serve as the finale to an intergenerational show starting at 7 p.m. that also features dancers from Kent State University; Perennial Movement Group, a Columbus organization made up of performers over the age of 50; and students from Wiggin Street Elementary School in Gambier.

“Dance can connect people, as it brought together these different groups on this stage,” Brodie said. “Hopefully, it will bring together a wide swath of the Mount Vernon community that maybe doesn’t always get to experience this kind of dance."

Born in Mexico, Limón was an immigrant who founded this country’s first modern dance repertory company in 1946. He is credited with creating a technique based in a humanistic approach to movement, characterized by an emphasis on breath; fall and recovery; and the idea that movement is a physical expression of the human spirit.

“Missa Brevis” (Latin for “short Mass”) is about the importance of community and the resilience it can provide in the face of disaster. It is set to Zoltán Kodály's “Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli,” a choral work composed at the end of World War II.

“He was really inspired by what he saw in the people in Poland and their ability to continue moving forward and working toward making life better,” Brodie said.

It’s a message that performers hope will inspire members of the local community. While the work was performed at Kenyon and Ohio State during the fall semester, getting in front of the general public is particularly important to those involved.

To deepen the community’s experience, Kenyon students Zoe Weiner ’24 and Eve Currens ’25 are providing free workshops about the history of “Missa Brevis” and Limón and leading movement exercises with a number of groups, including local schools and senior living facilities. Other sessions will be held at places like the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County (Jan. 31, 4 p.m.); The Annex (Feb. 3, 2 p.m.); and Knox Memorial Theater (Feb. 10, 2 p.m.).

Currens, a dance and physics double major from North Carolina who has earned a certification in intermediate Labanotation, assisted with interpreting the score and guiding dancers in their movements.

“The fact that we can write down movement is so cool to me,” she said. “We get the skeleton and the backbone, and then seeing how each person brings their own self to the work and to the movement — I love getting to see that process.”

Using dance as a way of creating community — both between the performers and local residents — has been a powerful experience, she said. 

“Dance is a really great way to bring together all these different parts of the community. It's this shared experience that everybody can do, and it can be a really powerful tool for connection.”

Jamie Lyn Smith-Fletcher ’96, deputy director of development, special projects, and writing programs for the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, said such events help area residents build community and friendships through shared artistic experiences. 

“Workshops and performances like this make the arts accessible to patrons and inspire local dance fans in their own practice,” she said.

Puleio — who performed “Missa Brevis” years ago and whose company is premiering its own restaging of the work this month in Santa Barbara, California — said the experience here offered a fresh perspective as it was his first time working with the original score. 

“It was this really exciting moment of growth for both them and me,” he said of seeing aspiring artists step into a piece that is more than 60 years old and has toured the world. “I hope that this work helps give them a sense of accomplishment.”

Students from Kenyon and Ohio State have been working on “Missa Brevis,” both separately and together, for months. The idea of a collaboration between the dance programs at the two schools — an hour apart but connected by a shared interest in dance notation — was an exciting opportunity to learn from each other and appreciate each other’s strengths, Brodie said.

The result promises to be transformative, both for the audience and the student dancers.

“They’ve learned a ton by engaging with the Limón technique, working with dance artists from another program, and being coached by the artistic director of one of the best companies in the world,” Brodie said. “I mean, who gets to do that?”